Survival Basics – A Close Call and a Lesson Learned

Back in September of 2010, I was working by myself because my young field crew had all abandoned me to go back to college. I was setting some live traps to sample for flying squirrels. If no flying squirrels were found, a plan to rejuvenate the declining aspen forest by cutting down old trees could proceed.

If flying squirrels were found, the plan would have to be modified to make sure sufficient flying squirrel habitat remained. I didn’t know that while doing fieldwork I would end up “rescuing” a lost couple from New Jersey.

“Helloooo!” Rounding up Cows?

survival tips know direction

Don’t Depend on a GPS to Get Yourself Back To Your Vehicle

I was setting the next to the last trap just before sunset, when I thought I heard something in the distance. I stopped for a few seconds to see if I could hear it again. I didn’t hear anything except the wind in the trees, so I set the trap and moved on to the next trap 100 meters away.

Then, I thought I heard someone “hollering”, so again, I stopped to listen. I decided it sounded like cowboys trying to round up cows, but I couldn’t hear any cows.

I continued away from the noise toward my next trap. Then while I was setting the trap, I continued to hear the sounds getting closer and closer. This time, it sounded like someone was yelling “Helloooo!” Then it occurred to me that someone had probably found where I had parked the State Wildlife truck and just wanted to ask me a question.

I finished setting the trap and started walking back toward the truck and all the commotion. The Sun had just dropped behind the mountain and the air was cooling off quickly. After a few minutes, I could see two people walking in my direction. I was walking quickly and making a lot noise as I forced my way through the snowberry shrubs and wild rose that was growing under the aspen.

I stopped to see if they were the ones making all the noise. It was them. A man was yelling “Helloooo!” and a woman was yelling for Help. I started walking toward them.

We Once Were Lost, But Now We’re Saved!

When they saw me, that started running towards me. I should have been easy to see, since I was wearing an orange hat and a white shirt. I waved and tried to tell them that I was coming to them, but they raced up to hill to meet me anyway. When we met, the woman said something like “Thank God, you saved us”. They looked O.K. to me. What had I saved them from?

They were lost. They had been out hiking and had gotten off the trail and could not find their way back to their car. They had planned to be back at their vehicle about 3 hours earlier. They were dressed for the beautiful warm afternoon that had just ended, but not for the freezing temperatures that would arrive in a few hours. It was getting darker by the minute and the temperature felt like it had already dropped to the mid 40s (°F).

screen shot of gps map and waypoint

As a backup, always mark your vehicle with your GPS so you can set it as a waypoint to help you find your way back.

It was apparent that they were both really scared and were both talking a mile a minute explaining where they thought they lost the trail, about how they tried to find it again by first going in this direction, then that direction, about how long they had been lost, about being from New Jersey and not having a lot of experience in this type of country, about not being able to get a cell phone signal, about missing their dinner reservation, about how they watched all the TV shows where people died because they got lost in the woods, about how they had left their GPS in the hotel room, about how the trail map they had too little detail, about having no matches, no flashlight, no knife, about eating their last granola bar two hours ago, about how she really thought they were going to die that night…

I hadn’t really saved them. If they huddled together and didn’t do anything stupid like falling in the creek, they probably wouldn’t have died that night. At that elevation, the temperature would drop below freezing that night. They would have been cold and miserable, but they shouldn’t have died.

In fact, we were less than a quarter mile from the road. If a car had driven by, depending on the wind, we might could have heard it. There had been lots of traffic that day from the bow hunters riding around on the roads, but I couldn’t remember hearing any traffic since I walked away from the road about 40 minutes earlier. I was probably just a matter of time, before they would have found the road, but they obviously felt like their time was running out.

I told them my truck was just up the hill and I would take them to their car if we could figure out where they had parked. This was my first time in the area too, so I was not familiar with all the roads and trails. I would have taken them to town if we couldn’t find their car. Anyway, I got the party moving toward the truck, I had a headlamp, but If we hurried, we had just enough light left to make it.

After we crossed the creek and as we started climbing the hill toward the road, the breathing got heavier and the talking slowed down and then stopped. They were both keeping up with me. No surprise since they were both about 20 years younger than me, but I  knew they were not used to the 9,000 foot elevation. After we scrambled over a nasty little boulder field, I stopped for a second for everyone to catch their breath.

I was thinking about how they got to take a Mulligan that day; a “do over”; a get out of jail free card. They had made a mistake and luckily didn’t have to pay a very high price for it. It occurred to me that maybe I could still really help them. Not for today, but for the future.

Learning Opportunity

I suggested to them that while the events of the day were still fresh in their minds, that we take a few minutes and turn this into a learning opportunity. Knowing that most survival situations occur simply because people make bad assumptions. They assumed they could follow their simple map and the trails signs, but could not. They assumed they would return to their car by 3:00 pm, but did not. I asked them ” What else would you have taken with you if you knew you would not be back to the car before dark? Their list was not very long, but was very important.

Nothing like a real-world situation to bring everything into focus. I’ll bet “mamma” don’t ever go anywhere without that GPS again (and with extra batteries). I also bet they never go out without a lighter, a knife and extra granola bars either. They didn’t seem to be to concerned about wild animals until it got dark and the woman mentioned that she suddenly felt very vulnerable.

They seemed to know that we were not in grizzly country, but there were plenty of cougars and black bears in the area. These species are not usually an issue in primitive areas because they are afraid of people, but we have all heard the stories about odd behaving animals that do cause problems.

Personally, I expect more trouble from 2-legged predators, but either way, why not follow the Boy Scout motto and “Be prepared”. It’s everyone’s personal choice and responsibility. I doubt my new companions knew that in addition to the GPS, head lamp, batteries, lighters, granola bars, knife and multi-tool, I also had a .45 auto in my fanny pack.

Which Way is North?

I also asked them if they knew which direction was North. They knew. They also knew the general direction back to town, they knew that the mountains climbed higher to the North and that there was a deep canyon to the West.

I asked them which direction did they think the road was?” The woman seemed to have no idea, but her husband pointed to the East, which was correct. “That is exactly right”, I said, “So why were you walking South?”

He didn’t have a good answer, but it was probably because we had to cross the creek and then climb up a steep hill to reach the road, so they were just taking the path of least resistance. The creek would have eventually crossed the road, but it was a long way to a road following the creek; about 10 miles and a 3,000 foot drop in elevation.

Tell Someone Where You Are Going

A very important point is to tell someone where you are going and when you should be back. Being from out of town, the only people that knew where my new friends from N.J. were going was each other. They could have told the hotel clerk or even called the sheriff’s office. At least you can leave a note on the dash of your car with the direction you planned to travel or the name of the trail you were taking. Also include the time you left and the time you expect to return.

There is one more important point to make if you suspect that you are lost. You should stop walking. If you really have no idea about which way to go, how do you know you are not walking further away from civilization? At that point, you should have a very good reason before going further in any direction.

I drove them back toward the North to where I thought they had parked their car and luckily it was the right place. They had missed their car by about two miles and three hours before they ran into me.  At that rate, it would have taken them 15 more hours to reach civilization following the stream.

As I dropped them off at their car, they insisted that I give them my address so they could thank me properly. I was not sure what that meant, but it was not necessary. I hadn’t really done anything. I was glad to have been at the right place at the right time to keep them from spending a cold night in the woods. They continued to insist until I finally gave in.

What Else Would You Pack if You Would Not be Back Before Dark?

The next time you head out away from civilization, tell someone where you are going and when you will be back and take an extra minute to think about what else you would take with you if something happened and you couldn’t get back before dark. I’ll bet that N.J. couple never makes that mistake again.

Remember, that we also make a big assumption that the car will start. In town, that’s just a big inconvenience, but 40 miles down a rarely traveled dirt road, it will be a problem. When I drive into remote areas,  I take an extra battery and at least 5 gallons of water for the truck. I once actually had a leak in the radiator 40 miles out in the desert on a 100+ degree day. Glad I had extra water.

Every Person Going into the Back Country should have a PLB

Since I originally wrote this post, Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) have become affordable for the average person to buy and there is no fee to use them. I never go anywhere in the back country without mine. (Read more about PLBs.)

Surprise!  A “Thank You For Saving Us” Gift

Several weeks later, the Fed Ex guy knocked on the door holding a big box. We couldn’t remember ordering anything, so this was a mystery. The box was full of Omaha Steaks from the N.J. couple. It was a very nice sample pack of steaks, burgers and sea food. I still say it was totally unnecessary, but it was a very very nice gift.

So if the couple from N.J. recognizes their story in this post, Thanks You for the gift and I hope you come back to enjoy the spectacular country that we are lucky to call home . But one question though… How did you know that we’re not Vegan?

What’s your best survival tips? Have you or someone you know get lost while hiking? How did you survive and find your way back?

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